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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > October 2017 > Leith on language

Leith on language

Alliterating Armageddon

Are we all still here? I write in optimism, because there’s nothing that dents a magazine’s circulation and a columnist’s potential readership like the world having been bombed into a patchwork of greenly luminescent basketball pitches. And at the time of writing that is the route down which we seem to be heading. Or so excitable headlines—and the excitable communiqués on which those headlines are based—seem to suggest.

“Fire and fury” is what the 45th President of the United States of America promised, in a press conference sally against the leadership of North Korea. “North Korea… best not make any more threats to the US. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Leaving aside the hair-raising geopolitical/diplomatic/game-theoretical— or, as you might call them, “kaboomy”— implications, one has to admire a catchy turn of phrase delivered off the cuff.

Fire and fury don’t just alliterate; they enact a turn: the first vowel sound twists from the high-pitched “I” into the lower— and hence more threatening—”u.”

That’s all accomplished within a consonantal framework that allows the words to play off each other: the metaphor (fire) and the thing it’s a metaphor for (fury); the literal thing (atomic fire) and the emotional state (fury) that brings it about. And “fury” carries in it an auditory ghost of its near-rhyme, “fiery,” yoking the two terms closer together. I think Gerard Manley Hopkins would have been rather proud of it.

It has a biblical ring to it, quite in keeping with the Hopkins flavour. Isaiah 66:15, in the King James Version: “For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.” That said, Donald Trump, unlike his predecessor (steeped in the Baptist tradition of politico-religious oratory via Martin Luther King), does not have a ready habit of quoting scripture.

He may, rather, have come to the style of the phrase via another obvious ancestor: the hitman Jules, played by Samuel L Jackson, in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Shortly before popping a cap in some unfortunate’s ass, Jules quotes a version of Ezekiel 25:17: “I will strike down upon thee [sic] with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

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In Prospect’s October issue: Andrew Adonis, Steve Richards, Gaby Hinsliff, Rachel Sylvester and Jennifer Williams look at the idea that leadership is the only thing that matters when it comes to elections. Adonis leads the cover package arguing exactly that point and outlining his ratings of the leaders who have competed every election in the UK and the United States since 1944—Richards offers a rebuttal. Hinsliff, Sylvester and Williams profile three potential leaders in waiting—Amber Rudd, Jo Swinson and Angela Rayner. Elsewhere in the issue we map out the potential road the UK might travel down to stay in the European Union and explore the relationship between UN Secretary General António Guterres and Donald Trump as the two prepare to meet at the UN. Also in this issue: Philip Collins on the similarities between Britain’s Brexiteers and the Gaullists of yesteryear, John Bercow explains how parliament could function better and our “View from” comes from Nairobi, where the recent election result has been annulled.
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